Two female Legislative Research Commission staffers have accused a longtime Kentucky representative of sexual harassment.
WFPL and the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting originally reported the sexual harassment allegations brought Friday by Cassaundra Cooper, an aide to House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, and Yolanda Costner, an adviser to House Majority Whip Tommy Thompson, against Democratic Rep. John Arnold of Sturgis. The women agreed to be identified but declined to comment on the matter, according to the report.
The report says Arnold, first elected in 1995, allegedly inappropriately touched and made lewd comments about the women dating back to 2010 and as recently as Feb. 14. The women complained to high-ranking House Democrats, LRC and Kentucky State Police, according to the report.
Arnold, 68, left the House chamber Wednesday without speaking to reporters. He did not return a message at his legislative office seeking comment.
Louisville attorney Thomas Clay, representing Cooper and Costner, also did not return a call seeking comment.
Rep. Tom Riner, D-Louisville, said in a floor speech Wednesday he encouraged the women to step forward and said another planned to file a similar complaint. He did not identify the women, nor did he name Arnold, who sat directly behind him during his remarks.
Riner said he plans to file a resolution praising the women for their “principled stand” in stepping forward with their complaints of sexual harassment.”
“As a legislator, I think we have a right to know information that would help us address issues regarding crime because that’s what it is,” Riner said. “When you hit someone, whether it’s on the buttocks or wherever you hit them, it’s still an assault.”
Riner said family members of the women are concerned for their safety and want to know their whereabouts “at all times.”
“These women have no security whatsoever,” he said. “No job security.”
LRC Director Bobby Sherman disputed that claim, saying the women’s jobs are protected under state law and the agency’s personnel policy. LRC employees are non-merit, but those who lodge sexual harassment complaints or cooperate with such investigations cannot be fired or demoted.
No employee has ever been retaliated against for filing a sexual harassment complaint or cooperating with an investigation, he said. LRC staff regularly complete sexual harassment training, most recently about a month ago, he said.
Sherman declined to comment on the complaints against Arnold.
“Again, when I’m dealing with anything specific involving personnel, I can’t talk about it,” he said. “Secondly, it’s my understanding that ethics complaints have another layer of confidentiality that is applied to them in terms of how they’re received, how they’re handled.”
Tony Wilhoit, executive director of the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission, neither confirmed nor denied the complaints against Arnold.
Generally speaking, the commission gives subjects of complaints 20 days to respond to allegations before holding a closed-door preliminary hearing. The commission can dismiss the complaint or set an adjudication hearing, which would be open to the public.
Once a complaint has been resolved or dismissed, the case records are open, Wilhoit said. The commission can reprimand an individual publicly or privately, recommend his or her resignation and levy up to $2,000 in fines.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo said he has no direct knowledge of the complaints. He said he was never advised directly of the situation, but staff concerns were shared with Sherman.
“I have no tolerance for — and I probably speak for every member of this chamber — we have no tolerance for harassment of any kind,” said Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg.
Senate President Robert Stivers said he had “much sympathy” for the women who were allegedly harassed and said the investigation should take its course before any action is taken.
Any attempt by LRC staff or legislators to stymie the investigation should be dealt with swiftly, he said.
“If it is an LRC employee, it will be my position, and I think something that I have spoken with other leaders, that that person should be fired immediately upon showing that they did something,” said Stivers, R-Manchester.
Stivers said he had no knowledge of such punitive action, but there have been insinuations that it has occurred.
“This is something that can’t be upheld or swept under the rug,” he said.
Steve Robertson, chairman of the Republican Party of Kentucky, called Arnold’s alleged behavior “despicable” and “an embarrassment to our state.”
“It is evident that several members of House Democrat leadership, including Majority Whip Tommy Thompson and Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, knew of the allegations and did not take action, which is extremely concerning,” he said in a statement.
“Democrat House Speaker Greg Stumbo even admitted to knowing about these allegations and did nothing about them. These members’ actions, namely the dismissal and suppression of female employees’ complaints, are unacceptable.”
In response, Stumbo said complaints were promptly referred to Sherman, LRC’s director, for investigation. House leaders acted appropriately in the matter, he said.